Advocacy or advertising? Don’t fake it
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Advocacy or advertising? Don’t fake it

Consumers listen to other consumers, and online reviews can do wonders for your brand – but only if they’re real. Businesses that subvert this and mislead consumers with false advocates could be on the wrong side of the law.

Online advocates are more important than ever, and the impact of traditional advertising is shrinking. In this world of blurring lines – where marketing funnels become marketing cycles and online media never sleeps – the divide between advertising and advocacy is increasingly foggy.

Traditional forms of advertising are increasingly being accompanied or even replaced by advocacy – public support or recommendation of a particular product or service. In a consumer-centric market, brand advocates can be worth their weight in gold.

However, they may not come skipping up to your business’s door. Recruiting effective advocates takes time and can be difficult. There’s one key tip:

Don’t invent them.  

It can be tempting to try and recruit your own through monetary incentives; there are a lot of sites out there, and good reviews of your product or service are helpful. But there are a whole host of reasons why you shouldn’t embark down this murky route.

Firstly, it could be illegal, depending on where you are in the world. Bogus online reviews have recently been the focus of a number of investigations and lawsuits, and websites are clamping down.

Amazon has made efforts to crack down on fake online reviews and last year brought legal action against 1,000 unidentified people claiming they received payment in exchange for fake product reviews. The company has also sued a number of businesses that sell reviews and has now started to take action against merchants on its own site for writing fake reviews themselves or purchasing fake reviews.

It’s an area that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been investigating.

The consumer protection body has taken enforcement action against fake online reviews. An investigation into a search engine optimisation (SEO) and online marketing company found that, over a year, it had written more than 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses across 26 different websites.

The marketing company did comply with the investigation and set out new business practices. Previous concerns raised by the CMA also led to five websites – two for tradespeople, and three for care home reviews – agreeing to implement changes to sit on the right side of consumer law.

The increase in attention and action taken against fake advocates is a warning.

The behaviour of soliciting false reviews risks sullying the entire market of online testimonials.

Research conducted for the CMA found that 54% of UK adults regularly access online reviews, with 80% of consumers using them to inform a purchase decision. This means that £23bn a year of consumer spending is potentially influenced by online testimonials.

If people start ignoring online reviews, assuming that the majority posted are not real, then even honest and well-intentioned brands suffer. Whether or not your business has participated in the wrongdoing, your brand reputation could be undercut.

So what can you do?

For a start, read the CMA’s 60 second summaries for businesses on keeping marketing and advertising within the law. 

Crucially, it is against consumer regulations to falsely claim that a trader is not acting on behalf of their trade, or to falsely represent themselves as a consumer.

Work instead on creating a valuable, meaningful and effective product – and work hard to get real consumers on your side.

The trick is not to try and falsely control your brand reputation online. Put up with the odd bad review, and act authentically – and within the law.

Maeve Sinnott Journalist CPL
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